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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Details, Details ... Why We Overlook Them

Here’s an ordinary snapshot of two ordinary people: elderly, plain, friendly enough. But, wait, don’t move ahead quite yet. Want to know them just a bit better? Focus briefly on a few obvious but easily overlooked particulars that give glimpses into their lives.

The woman -- she looks early 80's -- has her arms crossed awkwardly. She doesn’t know what to do with them: hide the aging, melanoma-like spots on her arms, her self-conscious size, or, possibly, a masectomy? Her pure white hair looks manageable and stylishly simple, as do her gold earrings, tinted glasses, and straight teeth (probably dentures). She likes this part of her body; she can control its appearance.

On the man’s arms are smudged tattoos, one of 1930’s cartoon favorite Betty Boop, the other almost unrecognizable except as a memory to him. It's likely he got those tattoos in his wild days “in the service,” as people used to say, and given his age – probably close to 90 -- he likely fought in the Big War. His hands are large and gnarly; he was a laborer of some sort – construction, plumber, carpenter?

He’s wearing a jersey from a cruise through the Panama Canal. He doesn’t seem to be a cruise enthusiast. Perhaps he went for her sake. She made him buy the shirt, I would guess.

If you look quickly at the photograph, you might say, “nice.” If you pay attention to its details, you probably will say, “Hmm, fascinating. What more is here that I’m missing?”

We all understand the importance of details. Why, then, do we often miss them?

3 reasons

  1. We overlook details because we over-extend
    We hated the word “no” as a child and even more so as an adult. We don’t easily take “no” for an answer nor do we feel comfortable saying it to others. “No” sounds rude, makes us look inadequate, and opens us up to the likelihood of being unliked.

    So, we say "yes" way too often to way too many activities that we don't have time or desire to do. Consequently, we replace thoroughness with busyness. Expediency shoves focus aside. Unrealistic deadlines ignore details.

  2. We overlook details because we self-direct
    My wife is amazingly other-directed. A conversation with her is a conversation about you. She honestly wants to hear more specifics because she cares about you and what you're saying.

    That’s not my style. I’m affable but tainted by narcissism. Do you share the same dilemma? We pick up cues in the conversation to which we hook our experience so we can talk about us. The exchange is more about our agenda, about our script, and about posturing than exploring the nuances of the other person.

  3. We overlook details because we procrastinate
    Occasional procrastination can be good (see Regret Writing). Habitual procrastination is not. Procrastination is avoiding details that test our knowledge, skills, and stamina. Details require responsibility and accountability -- two frightening demands for a procrastinator.

    Procrastinators get off the hook by assuming that others are taking care of details. Too bad they’re assuming you’re taking care of them. We blame them, they blame us.
5 -day rehabilitation program
  1. Monday: Say no at least once today to participating in what seems to be yet another good idea at the time.
  2. Tuesday: Reporters are detail addicts. Take one to lunch and learn how they look for specifics that turn into meaningful stories.
  3. Wednesday: Dissect a new assignment and find the 20 percent of the details that could sabotage the project and embarrass you. Invest 80 percent of your time in that 20 percent.
  4. Thursday: When you shake someone’s hand, watch his face and other non-verbals, and write a paragraph later on what you think all of that meant.
  5. Friday: Give an assignment to a staff member and tell him he will have to answer at least eight of the ten questions you will ask him when he thinks the project is done. Don’t tell him the questions.
A few final details:
  • When one more detail is added to the original image – a loving daughter-in-law -- everything changes.
  • Did you catch the typo in the second paragraph?(mastectomy)
  • My widowed mother is doing well with long days and short years. My father moved on in 2005. You would have liked him. I certainly did.
Richard Skaare

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey Rich,
Your father is still around, he is just in the details. ;-)

Cam

Shevonne said...

I am way too observant about everything around me. I realized that maybe more than others when I was speaking to my parents. Details I picked up my a person's body language, expression, and tone of voice was lost to the other people in the room. Great post!

Marianna said...

Love this article & your 5 day plan.

Some other thoughts:

We over-look details because we are too stressed. Think flight, fight or freeze.

We over-look details because we either are chunked-up or chunked-down.(We view the world as the big picture or we like details. Certain types of work lend themselves better to one or the other.)

Learning to chunk up or down; in other words, be flexible, is a valuable skill. That brings us back to being stressed.

When we're stressed, it's like looking through the broad end of a funnel. Transform the stress & suddenly you are seeing more.

Nicely put, Cam.

Lovely tribute, Richard.